When John F. Kennedy flew to Texas to begin his reelection campaign for the presidency on Thursday morning, November 21, 1963, the number-one band in the US consisted of five teens from Southern California called, appropriately enough, The Beach Boys. A heady mixture of cousins, siblings, and neighbors ranging in age from 17 to 23, the fledgling band had already released four long-playing records between 1962 and ’63, with their latest album release, Little Deuce Coupe, establishing itself as one of rock’s first “concept albums.” Within 18 months of their arrival onto the pop music scene, The Beach Boys had already manifested themselves as quintessentially American in style, concept, and sound.
Why, then, did such an improbable collection of kids from a working-class suburb of Los Angeles grab hold of the imaginations of millions in such a short time? It’s fairly simple: The Beach Boys’ were blessed to be led by the group’s lead vocalist, bass player, and primary composer, Brian Wilson. A musical wunderkind whose tastes ranged from Beethoven to The Kingston Trio, Wilson had been influenced by such disparate composers as George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Chuck Berry, and the R&B songwriting duo of Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller.
At first glance, Brian Wilson’s initial songs from that time period were decidedly sophomoric – his content centered principally on surfboards, cars, and girls. Still, there was a profound wistfulness to such lingering ballads as “The Lonely Sea,” “In My Room,” and “A Young Man is Gone.” The underlying pathos that consumed The Beach Boys’ leader to the point of mental paralysis resulted from the relentless verbal and physical barrage he received from his eternally envious father, Murry. In retrospect, the eldest Wilson son was so bullied and badgered by his father to produce more, better, and marketable songs that he did for the most part.
While the canon that Brian Wilson generated between 1962 and 1963 seamlessly captured the still firmly entrenched innocence of 1950s America, the guileless tunes he crafted back are now conspicuous cultural fossils to a different time when we fervently believed in our leaders, our institutions and our futures.
Consequently, when John Kennedy flew to Dallas on Friday morning, November 22, 1963, the 1960s, as we now think of it, commenced. The dividing line was the assassination of a beloved president whose youth, vitality, humor, and promise were so pronounced that Martin Scorsese once compared his murder to a national car crash. After John F. Kennedy was buried on November 25, 1963, on a sloping hilltop in Arlington, Virginia, Americans entered an entirely different continent where everything was up for grabs and capriciousness had replaced certainty. The shadow of darkness that descended upon the nation then is still with us all these years later.
As a result of this shattering historical reality, Brian Wilson, who had already come to embody what it means to be an American, would then compose decidedly different fare, including such classics as “Don’t Worry Baby,” “California Girls,” Good Vibrations,” “Till I Die,” “Heroes and Villains, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “Caroline, No,” and “Surf’s Up.” Each of these masterworks, written, produced, and released between 1964-1967, turned out to be some of the most sublime ballads generated by one of the most talented composers of his generation.
While I have long been in awe of the brilliance of The Beach Boys during their mid-to-late sixties renaissance, their meteoric rise to prominence was what made me first love them. When you listen to their early musical catalog 60 years later, there’s an authentic luminosity to their music that is almost magical. Many of their earlier numbers consisted of major-key primal guitar patterns and bendable, doo-wop harmonies wrapped around a kaleidoscope of melodic, gorgeous hooks. As Brian Wilson became more accomplished as both a songwriter and producer, he began to mess around with the formula, making unexpected chord changes and writing complex vocal harmonies that go beyond the strains of a mini male glee club and enter into the sound he’d ultimately write on Pet Sounds with its Sondheimesque chord changes. While most music fans recognize and even adore the numbers from the band’s initial period, they have never taken them very seriously.
One of the characteristics that made The Beach Boys so recognizable was that they were vocalists first and musicians second. (Remember, the vast majority of their classic recordings were backed by LA’s legendary studio group, The Wrecking Crew). Brian Wilson, who began writing songs in 1960, was a fledgling musical sponge/genius who seemed to have a knack for uncovering the invisible link between disparate things. As a teen, he had spent years deconstructing the four-part harmonies of the popular Midwestern vocal pop group, The Four Freshmen, whose Eisenhower-era hits, “Day By Day” and “It’s A Blue World” were top-ten hits before the rock era had commenced. One only has to listen to their biggest hit, 1955’s “Graduation Day,” to recognize their influence on young Brian Wilson:
Consequently, when the oldest Wilson brother began composing original songs, those luscious harmonies, based on the Four Freshmen’s barbershop quartet format, formed his musical template. The Beach Boys’ vocal influence ultimately impacted an emerging pop group from Liverpool, England. “We began to hear their four-part harmonies in 1963 and were instantly impressed,” The Beatles’ Paul McCartney commented in 2018: “Their singing was unique and so layered, and we attempted to incorporate that into songs such as “This Boy,” ‘Tell Me Why and ‘If I Fell.'”
(As an aside, my favorite Beatles-Beach Boys’ story takes place in the remotest of locations, Rishikesh, India, where Mike Love and The Beatles were studying Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Indian Ashram during the winter of 1967-68. One day, Paul McCartney approached Love and told him that he was composing a Chuck Berry-like rocker called “Back in the USSR.” After Sir Paul played him the first verse of the tune, Love suggested to Paul that he then write a bridge that would talk about the girls all around Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. The stuff of legend often comes from happenstance.)
Gifted in crafting complex melodies, Brian Wilson began to chart out based on everyone from Bach to Ledbelly; once he started to add the rhythmic sound of Chuck Berry, he ultimately created a distinctive, multi-layered sound that was both hypnotic and sustaining. Consider that one of the Boys’ most significant early hits, “Surfin’ USA,” was actually the melody of Berry’s iconic “Sweet Little Sixteen” with updated, surf-related lyrics and doo-wop-ladened vocals. (As veteran singer/songwriter Terry Cashman wrote in a 1976 ballad called, “The King of Rock and Roll”: “And out in Hawthorne – just a little bit south of LA/’Sweet Little Sixteen’ became ‘Surfin’ USA!”)
As he evolved as an enterprising composer who wrote about topics that a typical adolescent kid from Southern California was consumed with in the early sixties – girls, cars, surfboards, and high school life – Brian Wilson’s songs nimbly captured both time and place with aplomb.
The Beach Boys’ first album, Surfin Safari, which was released on October 1, 1962, by Capitol Records, included nine original Brian Wilson compositions, including “Surfin’,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “409.” and “Ten Little Indians.” The group, which centered around the three Wilson brothers, Brian, Dennis, and Carl, their first cousin, Mike Love, and their high school buddy, David Marks, was based in their hometown of Hawthorne, California, a suburban enclave approximately 15 miles southwest of Los Angeles, and five miles east of Manhattan Beach. (After a fight with Murry Wilson, David Marks would leave the band in the fall of 1963 and be replaced by another Hawthorne native, Al Jardine, who would become a staple in the band thereafter).
While “Surfin’,” the band’s first hit, and “Surfin’ Safari,” their second, famously catapulted the surfing sound genre of rock and roll beyond the West Coast to the rest of the world, it was the band’s third single from the album, “409,” that remains unique.
A canticle to Chevrolet’s 1962 vehicle, dubbed “The Bel Air,” Brian’s original number, “409,” paid homage to the car’s massive 409 cubic-inch engine. As my “car-crazy-cutie” pal, Philly Alberice, recalled recently: “It was a beast of a car, which had a single Carter four-barrel carburetor that supplied enough fuel-air mixture to provide hot-rodders with more than 400 horsepower in a nation where street-racing was still quite popular.”
In hindsight, when Brian Wilson moved from sea to land with this song, he transported the Beach Boys’ sound to it. Composed with producer Gary Usher, a car junkie at the time, there was even humor in it, with the hysterical refrain: “Giddyup, giddyup, 409!” forming the bridge to each verse.
Happily, “409” contained infectious melodies, crisp harmonies, and a rhythm track worthy of Eddie Cochran. While the band would be forever associated with surfing, “409” triggered over two-dozen “car songs” in their catalog, a number larger than their surf-related tunes. As Brian Wilson admitted years later: “‘409’ proved that we were not going to be just one-trick-ponies focusing on surfing. We could write or sing about most anything.” Even more significantly, the ballad was emphatically optimistic – an ode to American exceptionalism in rock form. After the release of “409,” Capitol Records subsequently signed the band to a formal contract.
A little more than five months later, on March 25, 1963, The Beach Boys released their second long-playing disk, Surfin USA. It proved to be the biggest-selling rock and roll album of 1963, selling more than two million copies and bringing the group newfound national success. While their first LP had been patchworked together, this was the first album with which Brian Wilson became a force to be reckoned throughout the LP’s production.
As he recalled in 2013, on the fiftieth anniversary of the record’s release: “By the time I got to the album, Surfin’ USA, I was more experienced at producing. The Surfin Safari album was practice for me… This album showcased our voices. We were just kids, but we were serious about our craft. The point is that when you are given a chance, you do your best… I think that I was a good coach for the boys. I didn’t like second-rate vocals. It was either the best or nothing, in my opinion. The boys picked up. We had a good understanding between us, and I was their leader. We got it done relatively fast in the studio. … On this album, we had gotten into a fast pace: almost athletic in nature. It was because the single “Surfin’ USA” was such a smash hit on the radio. It meant the big time for us.”
Like the first record, Surfin USA contained nine original Wilson songs and three covers. The title track, “Surfin’ USA,” went to #3 nationally in May of ’63, while another car-centric tune, “Shut Down,” would stall at #23 that summer. Because it far outsold their first record nationally, the California mythology that would frame the band and then the decade of the 1960s began here. Ladened with a patchwork of surf-related tunes, its foundational centerpiece was the seemingly endless beach that seemed to incorporate all of California for folks outside the region who first imagined it through numbers such as “Noble Surfer,” “Stoked,” “Surfin’ USA,” and the underrated “Lana.”
However, Brian Wilson’s pensive “Lonely Sea” turned out to be the most enduring song on the album. Critic Dave Marsh once claimed that it was the first draft of “Surf’s Up” – a haunting, chills up-and-down-the-spine kind of number. When you hear it all these years later, it is a stunner; it aches; it is what heartbreak sounds like on wax. For many longtime Beach Boys fans, it remains their favorite group song. Ultimately, “Lonely Sea” would be a harbinger of the ballads that would make Brian Wilson a rock legend by 1966 and the release of Pet Sounds.
Just five months later, on Labor Day, 1963, Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys released their third album in less than a year, another record named after a single entitled Surfer Girl. While it was not as wildly popular as Surfin USA, it was an even better album, producing such early gems as the jaunty “Hawaii,” the effervescent “Catch A Wave,” the broody “Your Summer Dream,” and the venerable title track, “Surfer Girl,” which soon became an anthem for an entire generation.
The most significant thematic notion in “Surfer Girl” is that the most precious things in life are cursory. Frankly, the ballad is nothing less than a snapshot at the moment that captures the essence of youth, which will eventually fade away. It was the first Beach Boys song where Brian Wilson was credited as the solitary songwriter and producer, which is astonishing when you recollect that he was just 21 and had worked as a recording artist for a little over a year. In a radio interview a decade and a half after the song was first recorded, Brian admitted that he was 19 when the melody to “Surfer Girl” popped into his head as he drove to a local hot dog stand in Hawthorne. He rushed home, sprinted to the piano, and completed the number in less than an hour.
While The Beach Boys recorded a pedestrian version of the ballad back in 1962, their much more polished 1963 version gained worldwide fame during the fall of the Kennedy assassination. In terms of musicianship, The group’s ethereal harmonies support it like a pillar. Not surprisingly, Brian Wilson famously takes the lead and ultimately delivers the kind of mournful, love-begotten elegy that he would churn out like butter a few years later. “Surfer Girl symbolized a mystical place that I have never been to but sung about,” Wilson said 40 years after he recorded it. “Maybe I was there; I don’t know. I could have been – and not known it.”
“Surfer Girl” isn’t just a song about time – it is also a paean to hope -and the notion that any dream is attainable as long as you don’t know it’s impossible.
If “Surfer Girl” symbolizes love in one fleeting and iridescent moment, then Brian’s other significant anthem on the album, “In My Room,” is a lament emerging from a wellspring of loneliness that began to define American teenagers in the post World War II world. Clothed in the most succulent four-part harmony that The Beach Boys ever recorded, the tune’s lyrics border on the traumatic. In the end, this immortal ballad reminds us all that music is what happens between the notes.
In 1974, Guy Peelaert, a Belgian artist who began selling his work in Paris in the late 1960s, produced an illustrated history of the genre in paintings in a volume he called Rock Dreams. Each depiction captured a rock artist or group at work or play. The images were visually striking and captured the essence and the mythology of rock and roll in its first two decades. When I leafed through the book when it was published, Peelaert’s painting of Brian Wilson was incredibly evocative – looking chubby, aloof, and melancholy as he sat at his piano in his bedroom in a private space where his adolescent fantasies had become his own generation’s summer dreams by 1964. The painting captured the essence of Brian’s “In My Room” so poignantly that I called it “heartbreakingly accurate” in a review of the newly published book in my collegiate newspaper.
If you actually sit back and listen to “In My Room,” there is a hushed, trance-like near-religious quality to it that reminds us that there are times when music can transcend human emotion beyond laughter or tears. In a song that is barely two minutes long, Brian Wilson brings melancholy and joy together as the flip side of a coin where loneliness is omnipresent. Yet, the comfort and security of one’s room are also ubiquitous. One of my friends, the son of an unforgiving alcoholic, once told me, “Dad would beat the shit out of us, but we had Brian and this song, and it worked like a balm, which repeatedly saved me.”
Understandably, this masterwork had a revival once COVID-19 set in, as one music fan posted on YouTube recently: “With the pandemic raging on, forcing us all to stay inside our rooms, this tune has a particular meaning these days. It is the perfect musical single for our time.”
The fourth and concluding Beach Boys album that appeared during the Camelot years was released just three weeks after the Surfer Girl LP on Monday, October 7, 1963. If Surfer Girl was all about the beach, then Little Deuce Coupe covered the parking lot adjacent to the ocean. To the delight of many of the group’s fans, the record was a compilation of five of the band’s “car songs” that they had released previously, with seven new numbers added to form a seamless concept album, a genuine rarity prior to Sergeant Pepper. Besides the title track, “Shut Down,” “409,” “Our Car Club,” and “Be True To Your School” were featured, with additional numbers “Ballad of Old Betsy,” “Car Crazy Cutie,” “Cherry Cherry Coupe,” “Spirit of America,” “No-Go Showboat,” “A Young Man is Gone,” and “Custom Machine” rounding out the disk.
For a multitude of Beach Boys fans, myself included, Little Deuce Coupe LP remains a personal favorite. Although four singles provided the core, a handful of classics were within the record’s margins. One of them, “Spirit of America,” a reverent ballad that formed the centerpiece of Side 2, paid tribute to Craig Breedlove. The famed American race car driver turned out to be the first person in history to reach 600 miles per hour by using a series of turbojet-powered vehicles at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, all named Spirit of America. On August 5, 1963, Breedlove became the first human being to travel over 400 miles per hour on a measured mile on land. Brian Wilson and Roger Christian, his then-new writing partner, composed “Spirit of America” to honor Breedlove’s achievement.
As a musical number, “Spirit of America” is a seamless representation of “the early Brian Wilson” at his best. The lead singer of the ballad, Brian’s four-octave range, drives the engine here (no pun intended) and features some of his recording career’s best solos amidst the backdrop of 1950s doo-wop and armed with lots of axle grease. Brian’s distinctive falsetto is prominent throughout, a vocal tour de force that The Bee Gees’ Robin Gibbs later called “…as good as Frankie Valli ever did – and maybe even better.” Ultimately, this is a car song so good that you’d expect it to be sung in a cathedral; Roger Christian’s lyrics match the musicianship: “Once as a jet – it played in the skies; “But now on the ground – it’s the king of all cars.” Brian’s cry/refrain that harmonizes with the group, who sings the refrain, “Spirit of America….” is as good as any call-response harmony he ever produced.
To conclude Little Deuce Coupe, Brian and the band added a new number that put an exclamation mark on the LP and the first phase of their career. Almost laughably short – just 1:36 minutes in length (there were plenty of great tunes in the early rock era that were under two minutes, including “Not Fade Away,” “From Me To You,” and “The Letter,”) “Custom Machine contained all of the elements that made the early Beach Boys so enticing. A melodious hook, a hypnotic rhythm section, winsome lyrics, and soaring vocals.
The lyrics, of course, almost bordered on parody, especially as The Boys reverently sang: “Well with naugahyde bucket seats in front and back; Check my custom machine; Everything is chrome, man, even my jack; Check my custom machine).” When the band then concluded each verse by chirping, “When I step on the gas she goes wa aa aa….I’ll let you look but don’t touch my custom machine!” It was something akin to an entire nation checking itself under the hood and liking what it sees.
From the moment “Custom Machine” was first released in the early fall of 1963 to when Jack Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental entered Dealey Plaza in Dallas, America’s age of innocence had just 46 days to play itself out.
On the evening of November 21, 1963, as President Kennedy spoke to a throng of supporters in Houston before flying on Air Force One to Fort Worth, Mike Love and Brian Wilson were huddled together in Brian’s recently purchased bungalow in Hawthorne, working on a melancholic number akin to “Lonely Sea” and “Surfer Girl.”
In an essay in The Huffington Post in 2013, Mike Love recollected: “Brian began playing a haunting melody on an electric keyboard; I began to add some lyrics to accompany that melody. I was drawn to the melancholy sounds emanating from that keyboard. And Brian continued to play — and as we worked out the intro, the verse, and the chorus — an incredible feeling of sadness washed over us. Lyrically, I was inspired by this idea of lost love — where your feelings are suddenly not reciprocated. Maybe it was your first love, and she broke your heart. Maybe it was a deep love that faded before you were ready to let go. Maybe it was the love you never felt but always longed for. Regardless, it’s the kind of love that lingers… long after she’s gone. Brian and I ended up finishing ‘The Warmth of the Sun’ in the wee hours of November 22, 1963.”
The last song of the Kennedy Era for The Beach Boys would turn out to be the opening salvo to the 1960s as we came to know it. As Mike Love poignantly recalled: “A few hours later, on the morning of November 22nd, Brian and I were awakened to the news that President Kennedy had been taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. For a bunch of carefree guys in our early twenties, who, until this point, had been mostly living a life of fun, fun, fun — our innocence was lost. Our nation was in mourning. The whole world was in shock. How could this have happened? What a profound tragedy and deep loss — the repercussions of which are still being felt to this day. In the weeks that followed, that song written in the wee hours of November 22nd was recorded in a studio charged with emotion.”
As if to turn the page on an era before advancing forward, the Wilson-Love ballad was largely recorded on January 1, 1964, at Western Studios in Hollywood. In 2015, Brian Wilson recalled: “’The Warmth of the Sun’ was the end of an era – and the beginning of something new...for all of us.”
Frederich Nietzsche once wrote: “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” And while the sun’s warmth will never die, people that we love and admire invariably do. Just 33 months after “The Warmth of the Sun” was recorded, Brian Wilson had already composed and recorded “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Good Vibrations,” “God Only Knows,” “Caroline, No,” and “I Wasn’t Made for These Times.”
The world as we knew it had changed beyond comprehension.
Not surprisingly, when I sit back and play those early Beach Boys’ albums on Spotify these days, I can’t help but smile. They harken back to impossibly sunny days in which anything seemed plausible, and in a corner of time in which our collective prospects seemed both limitless and unshakeable. Of course, the surfer girl of our dreams is now more than 75 years old and is most probably on both Social Security and Medicare. How wonderful, though, to listen to the songs of a budding genius in a once-in-a-time world where cars, waves, and girls were all within reach. In the end, the sea still beckons, and most of us who grew up to the music of The Beach Boys still yearn to take the plunge into the baptismal waters of the ocean like children – for as long as we can.